Angilbert (fl. ca. 840/50), On the Battle Which was Fought at Fontenoy

The Law of Christians is broken,
Blood by the hands of hell profusely shed like rain,
And the throat of Cerberus bellows songs of joy.

Angelbertus, Versus de Bella que fuit acta Fontaneto

Fracta est lex christianorum
Sanguinis proluvio, unde manus inferorum,
gaudet gula Cerberi.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Church Fathers and Capital Punishment: St. Clement of Alexandria

UNFORTUNATELY, THE CHURCH FATHERS' witness regarding capital punishment is not entirely satisfactory, and certainly not conclusive. The inconclusivity of their witness may be evidenced by the entirely opposite conclusions scholars have drawn from them.

For example, Cardinal Dulles summarizes the witness of the Church Fathers and Doctors as a "virtually unanimous in their support for capital punishment, even though some of them such as St. Ambrose exhort members of the clergy not to pronounce capital sentences or serve as executioners."* Steven A. Long concurs, stating that the "nearly unanimous opinion of the Fathers and Doctors of the Church [is] that the death penalty is morally licit."** In my mind, this is too strong a conclusion from the evidence.

In his tendentious book The Death Penalty: A Historical and Theological Survey, James Megivern summarizes the witness of the Church Fathers prior to Constantine as ambiguous and not particularly enlightening. Similarly, in a more balanced treatment, Father Augustine Judd concludes that the Fathers establish no clear consensus regarding capital punishment. Rather we see a range of views from "accommodation to limited acceptance to outright prohibition of the practice."***

Father Thomas D. Williams comes to the opposite conclusion of Long and Cardinal Dulles regarding the Patristic testimony pre-Augustine, and states that in "the first centuries of Christianity the Mosaic precept against killing was interpreted literally and without exceptions. Capital punishment was considered irreconcilable with the faith."† This in my mind goes too far.

In light of the conflicting authorities, perhaps the best thing to do is to look at the evidence itself. So I have gathered together a smattering of Pre-Augustinian Church Fathers where the death penalty or capital punishment is directly or indirectly treated. This gathering-together of authorities should hardly be construed as a complete anthology.

St. Clement of Alexandria

The Patristic witness in support of the legitimacy of capital punishment under limited circumstances of necessity include St. Clement of Alexandria (ca. 150-215). His support for capital punishment as a legitimate power of the State is given in his Stromata, 1.27. The context is his discussion of the law in general. Megivern, citing Bernhard Schöpf's Das Totungsrecht bei den frühchristlichen Schriftstellern bis zur Zeit Konstantins (Regensburg: F. Pustet, 1958), identifies St. Clement as "the first Christian writer to provide theoretical grounds for the justification of capital punishment."
Let no, one then, run down law, as if, on account of the penalty, it were not beautiful and good. For shall he who drives away bodily disease appear a benefactor; and shall not he who attempts to deliver the soul from iniquity, as much more appear a friend, as the soul is a more precious thing than the body? Besides, for the sake of bodily health we submit to incisions, and cauterizations, and medicinal draughts; and he who administers them is called saviour and healer, even though amputating parts, not from grudge or ill-will towards the patient, but as the principles of the art prescribe, so that the sound parts may not perish along with them, and no one accuses the physician's art of wickedness; and shall we not similarly submit, for the soul's sake, to either banishment, or punishment, or bonds, provided only from unrighteousness we shall attain to righteousness?

For the law, in its solicitude for those who obey, trains up to piety, and prescribes what is to be done, and restrains each one from sins, imposing penalties even on lesser sins.

But when it sees any one in such a condition as to appear incurable, posting to the last stage of wickedness, then in its solicitude for the rest, that they may not be destroyed by it (just as if amputating a part from the whole body), it condemns such an one to death, as the course most conducive to health. "Being judged by the Lord," says the apostle, "we are chastened, that we may not be condemned with the world." (1 Cor. 11:32) For the prophet had said before, "Chastening, the Lord has chastised me, but has not given me over unto death." "For in order to teach you His righteousness," it is said, "He chastised you and tried you, and made you to hunger and thirst in the desert land; that all His statutes and His judgments may be known in your heart, as I command you this day; and that you may know in your heart, that just as if a man were chastising his son, so the Lord our God shall chastise you."

And to prove that example corrects, he says directly to the purpose: "A clever man, when he sees the wicked punished, will himself be severely chastised, for the fear of the Lord is the source of wisdom." (Prov. 22:3-4)

But it is the highest and most perfect good, when one is able to lead back any one from the practice of evil to virtue and well-doing, which is the very function of the law. So that, when one fails into any incurable evil—when taken possession of, for example, by wrong or covetousness—it will be for his good if he is put to death. For the law is beneficent, being able to make some righteous from unrighteous, if they will only give ear to it, and by releasing others from present evils; for those who have chosen to live temperately and justly, it conducts to immortality. To know the law is characteristic of a good disposition. And again: "Wicked men do not understand the law; but they who seek the Lord shall have understanding in all that is good." (Prov. 28:5)

St. Clement of Alexandria clearly puts the power to put a man to death in the hands of the State and for the protection of the common good. Drawing from Plato and Aristotle and Seneca, he compares the art of politics to the art of a physician. The ruler, like the physician, must have the common good of the body politic in view. In certain instances, he is justified in applying "incisions, cauterizations, and medicinal draughts," which though they may appear physical evils, are intended, in fact, to protect the common good from the spread of disease. In the extreme situation, the State, like a physician, may amputate the diseased part for the sake of the whole.

So, without any apparent qualms, without any apparent squeamishness, without any apparent doubts, St. Clement of Alexandria appears to accept, or at least not contest, the propriety or at least moral legitimacy of capital punishment by the State to defend itself against evils and to advance the cause of the common good. As a subsidiary benefit to the common good, St. Clement also identifies that punishment of the evil in general leave a deterrent impression upon the good that the wages of sin is death.††

*Avery Cardinal Dulles, "Catholicism and Capital Punishment," First Things (April 2001).
**Steven A. Long, "Evangelium Vitae, St. Thomas, and the Death Penalty," The Thomist 63 (1999), 511-52. As lone exceptions, he cites Lactantius and Tertullian.
***Father Augustine Judd, O.P., Catholics and Capital Punishment (Knights of Columbus 2000), 10.
†Thomas D. Williams, The World as it Could Be (Crossroad: 2011), 77.
††One might here mention Megivern's rather tendentious treatment of St. Clement. He does not quote any of the argument, but calls it "not especially original," and based upon a "rather questionable medical analogy rather than to anything of specifically Christian inspiration." St. Clement's argument, however, is ensconced within his treatment of law as understood by Reason and Faith, and so it really is based upon both natural law enlightened by Revelation. Megivern also slights St. Clement's thought by caricaturization in summarizing the Clementine thought as one that capital punishment "should work like . . . an enema ordered by a physician." Finally, he suggests--without the slightest warrant whatsoever--that St. Clement's analysis would justify not only euthanasia, but Hitler's "final solution." Megivern, 22-23. I would suggest that St. Clement is strong evidence against Megivern's thesis, else he would not misrepresent it, slight it, and ridicule it

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